Interview: Kenny Keil
What brought you to Atlanta?
Well a couple of things brought me down here. After graduating from East Carolina, I went back home and worked at a newspaper for a while. And just like most people when they graduate design school, or art school, you think you’re gonna get out there and just blaze a trail right out the gate! So I had that mentality like “Yeah, when I get outta school it’s gonna be on! I’m gonna get a job, I’m gonna design, you know,”
So when I got out of school, that didn’t happen.
I was like, “Oh, what happened? Maybe I wasn’t as good as I thought I was,” so I got a job working at a newspaper. And my job at the newspaper was designing those ads that you see... Local businesses, local car dealerships, you know when they say “No money down!” or “Finance Anybody!” with the big starbursts behind the car and all that – That was my job.
I was doing this job and I was like “Wow, so this is how it’s gonna play out.” Then one day a guy retired, and he worked there for 42 years. He worked at the paper for 42 years, and... they gave him a watch. And I’m like, “Wait a minute, he worked for 42 years, and he wasn’t in charge of anything!” And I was like “Nah, that’s not for me.”
So I put my 30 day notice in... And then in 30 days I really didn’t have a plan. I was just like “In 30 days, I don’t know where I’m gonna be, but I’m not gonna be here.” So I applied for jobs all over the place, I kept getting leads from places like Atlanta and Chicago... And this was when the internet was really starting to buzz heavy before the bubble popped. So they were just snatching up designers from anywhere, throwing salaries at them in limos
to drive them to their job interviews. So I fly out to Chicago for one day–and you know what? I’m flying out of Fayetville, North Carolina. I’m not flying out of like, a major city. I fly from Fayetville to Chicago, they pick me up in a limo, and I’m like, the only time I’d been in a limo was prom.
I ended up taking a job in Atlanta designing websites and it was pretty cool. I did that for a while, and then I had a chance to see how the tech bubble really operated. Once the whole thing exploded, companies were folding like crazy. The company I was with got acquired by a big company and then, that big company went under. So there wasn’t a lot of work coming in, so I would go home and “work from home”, which pretty much meant, “I’m going to sleep.” I knew something was up... so I gave another 30 day notice. The last time I gave a 30 day notice, it worked out great.
So I get to work early everyday, I’m usually the second person in the office. But this day I get there and everybody’s there. People are faxing, papers are being shuffled around, and I was like “What’s going on?”
Next thing you know a voice comes over the intercom, “There’s going to be a meeting in the conference room” – Which is always a bad sign–So we get in there and the boss tells us that the day before a box showed up with everybody’s name on it... It was everybody’s pinkslip. The company shut down. These people were young, in their 20’s, some of them had just gotten married, some had kids... And the boss says “At 5 o’clock today, we’re shutting down all the offices in North America.” From that point on, I’ve been working for myself as an artist.
Now, while I was working at the web company I was also getting clients like Ecko, doing things for Coke on the side, so once the company went under, I was able to go straight to full time working as a freelancer. And I’ve been doing that for the past 10 years.
So you actually found more stability in being a freelance artist.
Well that whole experience taught me something about business in general. A lot of folks think that working for other people is the stable thing to do. And that was true once upon a time. You get a job, you work that job until you retire, and then you get a pension. Our generation doesn’t have that option.
I only know a handful of people who’ve worked at one job for 10 years. And that’s it. I have one friend who gets laid off or fired all the time!
“I got laid off today.”
“Okay, what else you got going on tonight?”
So right now, artists in general have to be a lot more resourceful and diversify their skill set to survive. So a lot of designers can paint, a lot of designers can draw, a lot of designers do video – So when you’re dealing with creative people they’re usually pretty good at a variety of disciplines. People are coming out of the gate with super skill sets, which helps them to survive but also makes them extremely talented in what they do. Because being that you have to do it all the time to survive, you tend to get good at it and you tend to be fast at it.
Was there a decisive moment growing up where you said ‘this is what I want to do?’
I [loved art] as a kid... to the point where I never really wanted to be anything other than an artist. Now, keep in mind by saying that “you wanna be an artist,” it’s not like I knew other professional artists growing up. For some people, when they think “Hey I like this, I wanna do this for the rest of my life,” but you don’t see anybody doing it – It’s kinda like saying “I wanna be an astronaut,” but you’re not aware of any space programs. What do I do? And especially looking at black artists, I didn’t know of any growing up. I did not meet my first professional black artist until I was like 21. Which is crazy. So it’s one thing to want to do something, it’s another thing to want to do something you don’t see anybody like you doing around you. It’s competitive. In some aspects, it’s very competitive. You try to push yourself, and other artists push you. It’s fun. It’s one of those things that, it’s hard for some people to relate to the love and level of passion that goes into it, if they don’t have something like that in their life.
You mentioned going to art school. Was there a particular major or discipline you were focused on?
At the time, the way the school was set up was that illustration wasn’t under painting, it was under commercial art. So, you have to know how to paint to do illustration, but you also have to know how to design to become a communication arts major.
So a lot of the illustrators I know are great designers because they had to be great designers. So once you graduated out of school, it was the design skills that got you in the door in order for you to develop your illustration.Illustration is a process-driven industry. You have steps, almost a formula to how you work out your pieces. Take thumbnail drawings. Most people hate doing thumb- nail drawings. They figure “Well I just wanna get down and paint.” But what they then realize is that process is designed to make your painting easier. Once you do those thumbnails, you get the thumbnail you like, you develop that into a final sketch... that way, you handle your problems in the drawing. So you don’t have to figure it out in the paint.
You have a thumbnail, a final drawing, a color study, and then the final painting. It seems like a lot of steps, but it makes the painting process go way smoother. I can’t think of too many people who are great at something that just “do it” – Like it just happens, like magic. It’s not magic. It’s practice, and it’s discipline. Great fighters aren’t great fighters because they were magic. They practiced, they trained, they got their strategy together and they executed.
It’s not as romantic of a story... But when you’re working every day producing images for commercial usage, you have to be able to execute an idea efficiently, effectively and on time.
Right, there’s clients involved. As opposed to studio art...
You know what though? Fine art’s the same way, you try to sell it. You’re selling your pieces. It’s just that, when you’re doing commercial illustration, the subject matter is chosen already. In the non-commercial world, a lot of artists have a specific style and subject matter they stick to, and they create images according to that. And people buy it. So, it’s still commerce. With a lot of the street artists coming out now, the line between commercial art and fine art is blurred. Because you have people who sell in the gallery, do stuff in the street, and sell merchandise, and t-shirts, and posters, and they just cover the whole gamut.
So the technical skills obviously take time and discipline, but what about your “voice?” How did that develop?
There comes points in your life where you say, “Okay, this is when the light bulb went off.” For me, it was watching Ralph Bakshi’s movie Coonskin, or also known as Street Fight. I’m in 8th grade, my brother brings over this VHS, and I’m like “Okay.” Now, when you look at the movie, if you just look at the visuals of it, you’re gonna think “Now this is some offensive shit.” But as a kid I looked at this and I’m like, “Wait a minute, you can draw people like this?”
Up unto that point, my artistic point of reference was comic strips and Mad Magazine. When you looked at Mad Magazine, you didn’t see black characters in that. So, there were no references to draw from. Once I saw [Coonskin], I was like “Oh! So this is how you can get down.” I started to exaggerate features more, and play around with things more.
And at the time, hip-hop music was in its golden era. So now you had artists coming out like EPMD, A Tribe Called Quest... and, you draw the things you like. So I’m drawing rappers, and hip-hop culture started weaving its way into what I’d do from that point on.
Another turning point was in college... When I’d paint images I’d get people saying to me, “Hey man, your stuff is too black. They’re not gonna accept your work... In order for people to like your stuff, you gotta diversify.” I heard it from a lot of people. I heard it from everybody. A lot of black folks would say that to me. Which was odd, because around that same time the black arts movement was just beginning to get really hot. So I’d be like, “Nah, I don’t think so.” So I’d go to class and paint pictures of hip hop themed stuff, and I don’t think the professors got it. Because it was so far from where they were... They couldn’t wrap their heads around the subject matter.
So after school, I didn’tchange. I just kept doingthat. And it just so happens that this was aroundthe time that a lot of urbanstreet brands were gettingpopular. And magazineslike Frank 151 were getting popular. And I had a chance to do stuff with them, and that led to doing stuff with Ecko. It was a good time for that in the early 2000s.
When I worked for the newspaper, there was another lightbulb that went off. There was an article that came in the magazine, and the title of the article was “Why Aren’t You Famous Yet?” So I started reading it, and the more I read it I was like “Oh, so this is how you do it!” The article was written in like 1999, I still have a copy of it today. It basically said, “this is how you promote yourself, this is how you do it.” And I applied a lot of that, and that’s how I was able to get into magazines in different countries and get featured.
And I tell you what, a lot of the time I got into those magazines, not because they were looking for people like me, but because I asked. I’ve never had a manager or anything like that, so it was just me out there asking people to get this coverage.
How would you describe the Atlanta art scene?
Coming out of North Carolina, there’s only a handful of places a lot of folks are headed to: Charlotte, Raleigh, DC, or Atlanta. And Atlanta was like the land of milk and honey for folks. So when I was in college, Kevin Powell came and did a lecture at our school. During his lecture he spoke about the Black Arts Festival. And after his lecture I was like, “Hey man, I want to know more about this Black Arts Festival thing.” And he was like “Yo, you gotta go.” So, during that Summer I studied art in Belize. When I flew back, I immediately jumped in my car and drove to Atlanta, to the Black Arts Festival. So I find my way to the Underground, and I’m seeing all these amazing artists... that look like me!
The art scene here is very interesting, because a lot of people in the black art scene all moved here. And it became like a hub because of the Black Arts Festival. What a lot of people don’t know is when I first got here there was a drawing society of all these famous artists that got together to draw. So when I got here I had the chance to meet a lot of professional super talents very quickly. Now I’m at the age where the people that were here before me are older and more established in their careers, and the people arriving on the scene when I was here, I get to see their careers develop. That’s really incredible.
Everybody does their own thing, but you can learn stuff from each other too. So the scene here is really cool.
Tell me how Art beats + Lyrics came about.
What happened is this: I had this vision of going after a big sponsor and doing these art installations... So the person I was working with, disappeared. And I have no more contact with him. At that time, I met Jabari Graham. And he asked me to be part of his art show that he put together. So, I was in the first one, it was at the 5 Spot in Little 5 Points, it was about 300 people that showed up over the course of the night.
So afterwards, we’re sitting down at Apache Cafe and he’s like, “Hey, I got this guy that wants to do the High Museum.” And I was like, “You know what? I’ll help you do it.”
We got a bunch of artists together, some local folks who were really, really good. It was a big group show and it was the first time that the High Museum had anything like that. It freaked them out. But within 2 hours we filled out the whole museum. There was a line all the way down Peachtree Street to get in there.
So, that was a major, major thing for us... To the point where we weren’t really prepared for all the stuff that comes with it. We went from being regular dudes to like, art stars. And the best thing that happened to us was the High Museum shutting the door down and not letting any more people in. At first it upset us, but by them doing that, there were thousands of people outside, and all those people could only imagine what was going on inside. People were shocked – all they could talk about was how they couldn’t get in. It was the best publicity we ever had.
Three years later, we partnered with Gentleman Jack and Jack Daniels. Most people don’t realize that before that, there was a three year span of time. We did the High Museum in 2005, we didn’t go on tour until 2008. In between that, there were a lot of false starts and disappointments, and then we had the opportunity to pitch it to Jack Daniels. And that’s when we got the show back on the road.
What’s it like to be in a show while you’re organizing it at the same time?
It’s tricky. You want to do your artwork because that’s what you do. But you gotta make sure everybody else has what they need to do the best they can do. So you have to study artists’ styles so you can make suggestions to display the work in the best way possible. You have to be able to art direct folks.
This past show I did black women as superheroes. For my installation, I said, “I’m not gonna go the route of doing a graffiti piece because that’s not what I do. So I created my wall to look like a room in an expensive house. So I started dabbling in set design to bring out the piece. So I sketched everything out, from the way the mantle is designed, to how I wanted fake books to look... So your skill set goes beyond being the artist that comes up with paintings to the artist that comes up with the paintings, the framing ideas, the decor to go around it... So that when you do look at the piece, you’re looking at it in the context in which I thought it would look best in.
And a lot of the artists in the show get to hang the work themselves and present the work they want to. People ask, “What’s your curation process?” And I tell them, “Dope artwork is the curation process.”
Let’s talk shop for a minute: You just moved into a new studio. What’s the set-up like and what tools are you using?
I want to get into oil painting more. I use oil glazing on occasion, as a finishing technique. It’s not really 100% oil painting. So I’m going to dabble in oil painting more. Also, I’ve been doing some studying on portrait painting. I’ve painted people my whole career, but, [portrait painting]... that’s a different animal. I want to learn that particular style of painting, too, because it helps in rounding out your skill set.
I started getting into martial arts and stuff like that, and I noticed that a lot of the fighters that are really good... When they find they have a deficiency in something, they study under somebody who specializes in that. So, I’m gonna take workshops. People ask, “Well why would you take painting classes?” “Because I plan on being a great painter.”
Never underestimate the value of somebody else’s perspective if they do that thing that you want to grow at. Never think you’re above learning. So I may have things set up to accommodate that with three tables and two easels, so I can work on multiple projects at the same time. And I also use my laptop as a reference tool. So I may have a screen up so I can pull up the image that I want to draw from. I find it a lot easier because I can zoom into areas, adjust the contrast, see where the shadows are and work from that. Any image you want, it’s right there.
I’ve done everything from pen and ink, brush pens, and I love doing ink washes now. There’s tons of art supplies out there that I’m dying to use.